In the Babylonian Talmud, authority comes in variety of flavors. Sometimes a tradition, heard from and cited in the name of a teacher, carries the day. At other times, logic wins. The behavior of a rabbi, the opinion of an expert, or the common practice of a community sometimes drive a discussion about law or ethics. But the trump, as anyone who has spent any time with the Bavli knows, is the Bible, especially the Torah. While it is certainly true that rabbis often turn and twist biblical verses as origami masters might, it is always better to have a verse on one’s side.
How, though, did the rabbis of late antiquity “know” the Bible? Did they have the whole thing memorized? Did they consult scrolls? Did their versions look like ours? Did they gravitate toward certain verses or sections, or steer clear of others? If so, why?
For me, these questions arose quite incidentally about a year ago in the context of an informal Talmud reading group. I figured that at least the empirical questions were easy to answer. Somebody, somewhere, must have compiled a list of the biblical verses in the Talmud and counted them up in various ways.
If such a study exists, though, I still cannot locate it. There are tools that indicate where in the Talmud a particular verse is discussed, but no charts, tables, and graphs that I could find helped very much when it came to quantifying the Talmud’s use of the Bible. So as a side project I began to assemble the data.
This turned into a more involved undertaking than I anticipated, but it is very close to completion. My crack research team – my son Dani Satlow and Elijah Petzold, a very talented Brown undergraduate – has now logged every biblical verse cited in the Bavli in a spreadsheet. The method for doing this was not perfect: we went copied the indices of each of the tractates published in the Schottenstein edition of the Talmud. We corrected obvious errors (mainly typos) as we went, but I suspect that the indices contain additional mistakes that are now incorporated into our spreadsheet (while undoubtedly introducing new ones of our own). Nevertheless, given the mainly quantitative goals of the project and the large numbers present, these errors should not significantly distort the results.
My next step is to figure out good ways to use this data (which I will make freely accessible, probably by the end of the semester), and here I welcome your advice. The three top questions on my list are:
- What is the most commonly cited verse in the Talmud?
- Are there verses, chapters, or books that the Talmud never cites?
- What is the density of biblical citations per tractate?
What would you like to know?
I generated the above image using Wordle, with random text from the beginning of the Talmud. Wordle might itself be useful for research; perhaps a future post on that.
Michael Satlow is a professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University and has been a mentor and sounding-board for the New Talmud Blog from the beginning. This post was crossposted from his own blog, Then and Now.